Rethinking Transparency and Accountability: Part 1
Virtually everyone in local government claims to champion transparency and accountability, but few attempt to define either of these terms or identify what conditions support and maintain them. Too often, municipal leaders rely on gimmicks and process to demonstrate that their government organization is meeting these laudable goals, rather than focus on building the culture of trust and transparency needed to truly serve their constituents.
Transparency: What Works and What Doesn’t
Let’s start with transparency. Transparency usually refers to government bodies conducting public business and decision-making in an open manner and that is accessible to the public. In contrast, a privately held company or non-profit organization has no obligation to share any aspect of its business with anyone (excepting after-the-fact federal or state reporting requirements). But public agencies are legally required to share their activities: Public meeting requirements and Freedom of Information laws — or Public Record Acts requests in California — are designed to ensure that local governments operate openly and provide reasonable public access to the decision-making process.
In spite of the procedures demanded by the legal structure of open government, there are several practical challenges to achieving transparency.
Municipalities have evolved into complex organizations, taking on a broad scope of activity (e.g., public safety, public infrastructure, housing, economic development, utility services, etc.). Even special purpose agencies, such as wastewater and maintenance districts, have ventured into areas beyond their original missions such as buying and maintaining open space or creating cultural museums. Publicly managing the myriad issues that emerge across these diverse service areas is daunting. Understanding that government is intentionally a slow and deliberative process, decisions about actions that may happen quickly in the private sector often take much longer in the public sector. When such decisions involve the cooperation of other jurisdictions, the decision-making process can become even more protracted. For those residents who do not follow such issues closely over time, it can appear that by the time the item is presented to the board or council for action, a decision has already been made. Most likely, it has been.
Sometimes issues emerge gradually, then, at some point, gain so much momentum that the decision to take action appears to have been made outside the public forum. Meanwhile, many routine operational activities (e.g., approval of service contracts and check registers) require council/board approval. The quick approval of such items (often presented in bulk on consent calendars) gives the appearance of rubber stamping.
Surprise decisions — decisions in which an obvious change in a municipal officials’ position on an issue occurs during public discussion — are rare, further contributing to the appearance that the ultimate outcomes are not decided in the course of the public discussion.
Some programs and processes aimed at supporting or enhancing transparency pose challenges of their own. For example, transparency software is popular with municipal officials because it offers a way to make key financial information accessible to the public. Transparency software makes multiple years of financial data available on the municipality’s website in a format that members of the public can sort and study in various ways. This access to data is championed as an important contribution to the organization’s transparency; but what value does the public receive for the cost of acquiring and maintaining the information?
During the decades I served in senior administrative and finance roles in local government, I never found such raw financial data to be particularly useful — regardless of the flashy interactive charts, tables, and graphics. If such data has little value to internal finance staff, it is hard to imagine how it could be relevant to someone outside the organization. While the public has every right to the raw financial data, it is difficult for anyone to draw useful and accurate conclusions about that data without more context as to its relevance.
Municipalities often confuse transparency with strict adherence to process. There is certainly nothing wrong — and much right — with complying with the legal requirements of conducting municipal business and following internal policies consistently and openly. Yet there are limits to the benefits of process as a foundation for transparency. Many poor decisions enjoy political cover by virtue of the fact that they were made in the open and were consistent with the organization’s policies.
Given the ineffectiveness of so many actions taken in the name of transparency, what can municipal officials do to actually meet the important objective of keeping their agencies open and honest?
In my experience, the most important element of transparency is respecting the publics’ right to know how their local government is conducting its business.
Setting appearance and process aside, there needs to be a level of trust between and among the governing council or board, agency staff, and the public. Any lapse in such trust will not be remedied by transparency software or desperate actions taken in the name of transparency.
The most transparent environments in which I have worked were those in which a culture of transparency was upheld by the earned trust of all parties — city staff, city officials, and constituents. Such trust reinforces the commitment to engage in difficult public discussions and disclose all information that is relevant to the responsibilities and actions of the governing body.
Yes, there are those who oppose transparency and would rather suppress information that should be made available to the public. Some municipal administrators resent the fact that they are operating in a government agency that has an obligation to its constituency to conduct its business openly. Such actors need to be reminded of the environment in which they are working and their responsibilities as government employees. But more damage may be done by expecting that transparency is a remedy for dysfunction at the municipal leadership level or that adhering to transparency-related processes is a sufficient condition for organizational success.
Municipal leaders need to focus on building a culture of trust and transparency rather than relying on flashy software graphics and process to carry them through. Only then can true transparency and accountability be attained.
For Part 2, Click Here
Mark Moses is a senior fellow with California Policy Center. He has thirty years of experience in local government administration and finance. His recent book, The Municipal Financial Crisis — A Framework for Understanding and Fixing Government Budgeting, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in January 2022 and is available from major online booksellers.